fb-pixel Skip to main content

Biden had fun at the State of the Union. Republicans did not. What does that tell us about 2024?

If Biden rose to the occasion, Republican lawmakers sank to their usual level of humorless incivility.

President Biden didn’t let the Republican negativity get him down. Instead, he dug in, not in a mean and nasty way but with humor and grace, as he engaged in a lively back and forth with his Republican hecklers.Nathan Howard/Bloomberg

President Biden was engaged and energetic, sunny about the country’s future, and at times even funny as he delivered the annual State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night. It was an unexpectedly strong performance from a president who also appeared to be having fun.

If Biden rose to the occasion, Republican lawmakers sank to their usual level of humorless incivility. Several times, they responded to the president with raucous boos and hoots and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia shouted “liar” at him. While House Speaker Kevin McCarthy avoided the kind of speech-ripping drama associated with his predecessor, he repeatedly shook his head “no,” and sported a pained look not unlike the one on Ben Affleck’s face during the Grammys.


But Biden didn’t let the negativity get him down. Instead, he dug in, not in a nasty way but with humor and grace, as he engaged in a lively back and forth with his Republican hecklers. Can that, plus his spirited call to “finish the job,” change the current narrative from Biden being a weak leader and octogenarian who should not run again to presidential candidate who Democrats can enthusiastically embrace and the country will reelect? One speech won’t do it. But more of that kind of feisty presidential engagement might make it easier for voters to give him a second look and forget the very big number — 80 — next to his name.

The substance of this speech was not its selling point. The most specific policy proposals fall into the category of small bore. Biden wants airlines to show consumers the full ticket price upfront and refund passengers if a flight is canceled or delayed. He wants to reduce exorbitant bank overdraft fees, cut credit card bank fees, and ban surprise “resort fees” that hotels tack onto a bill. He wants to stop cable, Internet, and cellphone companies from charging a fee when a customer switches providers, end service fees on concert tickets, and end luggage fees. As one friend — a Biden supporter — texted me during the speech: Next up, parking tickets.


There were other sweeping but vague calls to tax the wealthy, reduce the cost of prescription drugs, “do something” on police reform, and “do something about gun violence.” Biden talked about the jobs created during his tenure but said he still understands the pain that people feel. Of course he celebrated the infrastructure law and projects funded by it.

But Biden’s back and forth with Republicans is what will be remembered by anyone who watched this speech.

When Biden said some Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security, there were boos and Greene’s shout of “liar” — to which he humorously replied, “Contact my office.” When Republicans continued to indicate their disapproval of what he was suggesting about their intentions regarding those programs, he said he was glad to see they didn’t want to cut them, adding, “I enjoy the conversion.” He went on to say, “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? Alright. We’ve got unanimity.” Ultimately that was met with a bipartisan standing ovation.

When he referred to former president Donald Trump, saying, “No president added more to the national debt than my predecessor,” Biden also drew boos. “Those are the facts. Check it out,” he responded. He also said that Congress dealt with it by raising the debt cap — and that members should do the same now instead of taking the economy “hostage.”


If you are reading this and did not watch the State of the Union, praising Biden for this level of repartee might seem like a low bar. And it does reflect the low expectations from a performance level — which is different from assessing what he stands for and what he has accomplished as president. As you can tell from his speech, Biden still deeply believes in old-fashioned bipartisanship and in the ability of the institutions of government to function and deliver for the American people — even with someone like Greene shouting “liar” at him. Any voter who values those beliefs should value Biden’s presidency, even if they disagree on specific policy.

Biden’s performance also shows what comes with age. He is old enough to remember a Washington that once knew how to work together and find middle ground. Somehow, he still believes that’s possible and he won’t let the hecklers change his mind about that. You can call that stubborn and naive. Or you can call that the kind of optimistic, positive leadership that America sorely needs.

If only he were 70, not 80.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.